White Christmas, White Santas, White Privilege

I am dreaming of a white Christmas, and I’m not too thrilled about it. Last week my kid came home with her latest art project: a peach-colored Santa with a cotton-ball beard. I was curious. “You colored him peach?” I asked, remembering our conversation earlier in the week when I brought home black plastic Santas from Dollar Store to put near the chimney.

“That’s not the real Santa,” my kid said as dismissively as a 4.5-year-old could say. I had to lay the smack as a feminist mom who actively engages in anti-racist, anti-bias parenting. As best I could, I told her that Santa (who I dislike immensely—why should I put all my hopes and dreams on some rotund,  able-bodied, heterosexual white guy? He could be Rush Limbaugh, for all I know) can be whatever color you want him to be. At the same time, how could I blame her? White men dressed as Santas sit stoically at malls while white parents get their white babies to sit on Santa’s lap. White plastic and porcelain angel-women (no angel-men) sit on shelves waiting to top-off trees. On television commercials, thoughtful white husbands give their stoic white wives diamonds.

All this whiteness recalls the unearned privileges the brilliant Peggy McIntosh cites in her list, “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies,” where whites engage in a long list of social advantages stemming from the idea that “whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative and average, and also ideal.” Numbers 8 and 26 particularly stand out: “I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race” and “I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.”

Oh, I know what some are thinking:” Why don’t you just let your daughter be? Kids don’t see color.”

Au contraire, mon frere.

Noticing skin color is not a sign of prejudiced behavior, nor does it cause prejudice. But children are very much aware of the societal bias against darker skin (and I live in a city, New Orleans, where colorist attitudes–the brown paper bag test–is not too far in the distant past). Remember Anderson Cooper’s special on race last spring, where the white child attributed negative attributes to a dark-skinned doll?

All I wanted was a choice for the kids in class–black, brown, purple, red–especially if many of them like my daughter have skin tones much closer to the brown crayon than the peach crayon.

So, I called the teacher. No answer. Then I wrote what I considered to be a very thoughtful/careful letter explaining my concern for making my kid and her classmates color Santa in peach. Let’s just say that when she finally called me back during her lunch break, I felt her defensiveness as she ran down her list of  non-racist credentials:

1) “I am not that kind of person” (Me: “What person did I say you were in the letter? I mentioned you were a great teacher and that my kid was learning a lot in your class.”)

2) “We had some people … I don’t want to say it, because I’ll be judged. (Me: “No, please say what you need to say.”) “OK, people of your color over at our house last night.”

3) She mentioned three times that she and her husband were going to do missionary work.

4). “I don’t see color.” (Me, to myself: Yeah, well, the whole colorblind pedagogy is not enough. In my letter, I wrote that as educators and adults we have a duty to intercede in the development of children’s beliefs that the dominant white culture is superior to other ways of life. Kid learn this bias by the prevalence of white cultural images, and a lack of contact and information about non-white images. What are the consequences of promoting a colorblind pedagogy? Isn’t there a way, instead, that we can respect each other as individuals and confront and eliminate barriers based on race, culture, gender and ability?)

5) “She (my kid) acted fine in class. She didn’t seem to be bothered by it. Kids don’t see that thing.” (Me, to myself: Are you implying that I made stuff  up when, a couple of summers ago, my kid came home and asked, “Where are the the chocolate kids in summer camp?” or when she beamed when her teacher bought black dolls for the classroom)

6) “I have 24 students. I was in a rush to do an art project.” (Me: Sigh. )

Studies show that by age 3, and sometimes earlier, children show signs of being influenced by societal norms and biases and may exhibit “pre-prejudice” toward others on the basis of  gender or race or being differently abled. In a society in which institutional racism and sexism exist, it’s not enough to be non-prejudiced or an observer. We have to intervene and challenge institutional behaviors that perpetual oppression.

In the meantime, Merry Multi-colored Christmas!

Photo of a man dressed as Kente Claus, an African-American Santa, by Flickr user soulchristmas, under license from Creative Commons 2.0

Comments

  1. Great article!

    I HATE how people are ready to fall back on the fact that they don't "see color." We ALL do. The issue is what you do as a result of what you see. Maybe there is some mythical place (perhaps the North Pole?) where people can go their entire lives without color being an issue. However, we cannot afford to raise our children in a colorblind world. Whether we like it or not, children DO see race and become aware of certain biases at an early age. Isn't it best to make them aware and arm them with the tools to stand up to injustice or bias, regardless of the target? Instead of being defensive, the teacher should have addressed your concerns and found a way to incorporate your suggestions.

    One thing that I find hilarious is that part of her argument is that she was just trying to hurry through an art project. Umm… wouldn't it take LESS time to finish is you allowed children to freestyle and use the colors of their choosing, as opposed to trying to share a few peach crayons? Did she buy 24 boxes of crayons just so she could have 24 peaches?

  2. Martha, haftay, write on! Right you are. The teacher missed the point. Next time, communicate with the teacher face to face to avoid any misunderstanding. For effect, come dressed as black santa :)

    • It would have been a little bit more troublesome to set up a face-to-face meeting. I wanted to say something immediately, you know? I am not convinced that us meeting face-to-face would have prevented misunderstandings, you know?

  3. I agree with you, Martha, but…
    1. I wonder if the best way to engage children of color with Santa Claus is to "other" him. By this, I mean to share him as an icon of some other culture, not our own? That way, kids can enjoy him (as a novelty, perhaps) without permanently internalizing (hopefully). It becomes a cross-cultural activity ("Of course Santa is white–he is not from where I am from!"). I am generally not for othering, but maybe this is one acceptable application (slippery slope?!). Look: St. Nicholas was from what is present-day Turkey. Color-wise, he probably was kind of peach, probably with a bit of tan. And, the jolly white Santa Claus we all worship today is actually an invention of Coca-Cola. Rather than try to project onto him all of our hopes, dreams, and values, just let him be what he is (a walking advertisement and symbol of self-indulgent commercialism) and teach kids to not take him seriously–he's just a popular and enjoyable relic of some other culture. 2. On the other hand, if you really want to, you can make Santa Claus into anything you want–that's what Coca-Cola did. 3. Sounds like your real beef is with early childhood pedagogy, a much more complex, critical, and depressing issue. Thanks for another great post!

    • I love that you always remind me about stepping outside of our Western thought, which we always privilege. Thanks, Misha.

  4. I'm dreaming of a post-Santa, rainbow-colored Christmas…
    Santa is problematic in so many ways, this is one I hadn't grappled with myself, first because my kids and I are white, second because they went to Washington DC public schools, where Santa came in every human shade. But it's shocking to hear about a teacher in this day in age being so clueless. The research on kids' perceptiveness on the reality of how color plays out in the real world is overwhelming and has been readily available to every education student for decades…Your efforts to counter-program are admirable and I'm sure they will pay off. Way to go, Martha.

  5. outrageandsprinkles says:

    How hard could it be to offer the kids a variety of crayon colors or paper colors to choose from? Reading feminist blogs has made me so aware of my white privilege and all the little (and not so little) ways in which whiteness is portrayed as the dominant, normal race.

    • That's what I'm sayin'! Give the kids choices.

    • Perhaps there were other crayon and paper choices. It is unfortunate, at best, that all children do see early on the white culture more prominently displayed, advanced, etc. What we do and say as individuals to promote diversity, and commonalities, therefore is crucial

      • outrageandsprinkles says:

        Based on the teacher's response, it doesn't seem like the kids had options, but even if they did you make a good point. If the kids are taught that Santa can only be white, they are probably less likely to think that Santa can be black or asian or native american. I really can't remember the last time I saw a non-white Santa on t.v. or while out shopping.

  6. Well said, Martha. The "color blind" thing is insidious, it's nothing but willed ignorance. If it weren't so toxic, it would be hilarious: "I don't see color….I have some Black friends." It's incredible what we tell ourselves when we are terrified of admitting what feels like an ugly truth. And although I am a fan of self-delusion in plenty of areas (nobody will notice that I haven't cut my hair in six months…I'm the only one who thinks it kind of looks like a mullet), deluding oneself about race in the United States is an incredibly destructive choice, especially for an educator.Keep doing what you're doing, even though it's exhausting and frustrating. At the very least, the teacher will have to pause before forcing peach crayons on students. She may not get it, yet, but her complacency has been disrupted, and that's a step. In the meantime–are we ready to radically redesign teacher training in this country? (And in the meantime, maybe Santa ought to bring this teacher a copy of Lisa Delpit's _Other People's Children_).

  7. Her fumbling explanation is more burdensome than her craft activity. What she should have told you was that Santa Claus is based on a guy named Saint Nicholas who just so happened to be a white guy. Santa's not white because of white privilege. He's white because Saint Nicholas was white. If anything, he should look more Mediterranean, considering that Nicholas was of Greek descent.

    • pica_scribit says:

      This. You can colour your Santa with any crayon you like, but it's important to recognise that he is based on an actual historical figure, a 4th century Bishop of Myra (in modern Turkey) or Greek origin, who became, among other things, the patron saint of children. The legends that sprung up around him are decidedly dodgy, and it's no wonder we tend to "forget" them in favour of a more child-friendly version. Man, do I love me some history!

    • Yes! Why don't teachers know this?

  8. I find two things particularly distressing about the teacher's response. First, she falls into a pattern that white people need to learn how to evade: responding to situations involving race defensively stammering, "I'm not a racist!" and then spending their entire response listing reasons they feel they can defend that statement. It's generally not about BEING a racist. It's about ignorance (wilfull or not); it's about apathy; it's about, as you say, Martha, simply "being an observer" (especially as an educator). Misha, I think your response is one way in which she could have introduced something positive into this situation — something other than blindly inculcating herself and her class into hegemony.

  9. Second, her declaration (three times) that she and her husband were missionaries in fact more implicates her as "a racist" than make her seem somehow "post-racial." I wonder if she's at all aware, on any level, of the "white teacher's burden" tone that screams. Perhaps my first complaint can never be addressed as long as white people don't understand the ways in which they are ignorant of their own prejudices. It's true; I'm sure she doesn't burn crosses on people's lawns. But we need to get out of our mind the notion that the most work that needs to be done is ridding the world of neo-Nazis. The most work that needs to be done is ridding our world of the small ignorances that multiply and corrupt ourselves and our children.

  10. Thank you for this article. Whether or not the teacher has finally come around and appreciated your comments in your letter, you have taught me, and many others who will read this post, a valuable lesson on the importance of intervening when confronted with institutional racism. You are right – it is not enough to be non-prejudiced or just an observer.

  11. Thanks for this post. It's coincidental that I saw Maria Carey's new video last night, and everyone in the video is black, until Santa comes on at the end which seemed very odd.

    I just called my (white 8 year old) kids over to see the picture of Santa, and they both decided he couldn't be Santa as his clothes were wrong, and his beard so short. I felt good for about 30 seconds until I found a picture of of a black Santa with the exact proper clobber on. Immediate reaction was, that couldn't be Santa because he had black skin.

    I then checked if they knew that Jesus wasn't black, they didn't. I have some work to do regarding assumptions.

    They have always railed against a girl playing the Angel Gabriel though.

  12. Misha, that is an interesting idea with a lot of promise and merit. However, I discovered last year when my son entered kindergarten how difficult it is for a child to be different or "other" from cultural icons. We are about as white as it gets, as were most people in his school; yet the slightest implication that you are socially "off" or "other" than the majority is very powerful for young children. The way Christmas was handled in his class was absolutely offensive, and we are dealing with the fallout even this year. I never taught my kids to believe in Santa, because I feel he is a capitalist construct. Yet his teacher told him that he was real, and three or four lessons were devoted to Santa. When I asked how his Hindu best friend dealt with the lessons, he said his teacher had asked the child whether he had Hannukah or Santa at his house, and fearing censure of his friends, he said Santa; so she pushed ahead with no fear of disapproval. My child didn't want to hear about where Santa came from. He just wanted to fit in.

  13. heatheraurelia13 says:

    The teacher is just really making up excuses for herself and you not to bother with black santas or African American dolls, she is isn't making a conscious effort to change her teaching around race. I give her a E for Epic Fail.

  14. Santa was orginally Nicolaus Claus, a Catholic Bishop who did do what the stories say and who was white, being from Europe.Looking up St Nicolaus on google or wikipedia one can find the facts. Claus, pronounced Clauus, still is a common name in Germany.

    • That's as may be. But Santa Claus, the mythological personage who lives at the north pole and delivers presents across the world in one night with the aid of elves and flying deer can look however people wish to imagine him. The story of Santa Claus (as well as his look) has evolved differently among the cultures it's spread to. There's no reason for children not to recreate him to fit their culture.

      • LinearProle says:

        "There's no reason for children not to recreate him to fit their culture"

        Unless he is recreated and/or kept as a white European male. In that case its racism. Right?

  15. I'm in the Early Childhood Development program at my local community college. In every single one of my classes we have learned the importance of teaching about and respecting diversity. Is mine the only school in the country that teaches this?

    • rapedattufts says:

      Clearly we need more programs like yours. Not only that, but we also need to make all schools actively engage with teachers to make sure they create an environment where students of all identities feel welcome and included. As a student of colour that went to a predominantly white prep school, I can attest that one day a year for teacher 'diversity training' is NOT enough.

  16. This is the West….there are white people. You can claim that Santa should be modified for our culture all that you want, but then why would you call him Santa? Go ahead and change everything about him, but truthfully, you will not (or you shall be reluctant to do so at the very least). Why? You require his European origins -the primal ingredient for our modernist version of Santa- and yet he is still white (the United States is majorly white too). If this is racism, then I'm a racist for preferring vanilla ice cream. White inanimate objects are even listed in this article. Why? There is no logical explanation for why someone should be abhorred by the supposed "White Privilege" that is presented here. Go fight the real battles of our day such as: poverty, criminal injustice, poor education, religious bigotry/-inspired decadence, insubstantial wars, etc. The logic within this article is akin to the reasoning harbored by an individual who paints (especially with such vigor) an Easter bunny brown, because that individual finds white Easter bunnies offensive. To be precise, said Easter bunny does not even possess a tier of history likened to that of Santa Claus. Therefore, such an act would even be more bootless, because the established image of the Easter bunny is much more lithe. Imagine then, in such context, what insanity it is to be traumatized by the White Man in a red suit. Oh, what iniquity, this act should enthrall us all; the Evil White Santa deserves retribution. Our children cannot be exposed to this monstrosity!

    • White privilege is systemic and not personal. Whiteness is a way of distributing wealth and power according to arbitrary notions of biological difference. Teaching about whiteness moves antiracist education in progressive ways by presenting difficult challenges to the very idea of "race," and that, my friend, is fighting a real battle.

  17. methuselah says:

    A letter from Methuselah-(abridged) Well, for this Christmas thing down here everybody does a lot of shopping and gift giving. It's a jolly time with colored lights, special music..you'd find it a little strange—I do too. They talk a lot about peace and stuff but they don't do much about it. The men sometimes even beat up on the women -they have guns and shoot each other. Some folks hate others who have black skin. They don't even know that back in my day most everybody was pretty dark, very few lily white blue eyed blondes-at least I never saw any – did you? Ol' Methuselah may try to get one of those new-fangled black boxes called a blackberry. I hear you can receive and send messages with them. If so, I'll give you a call. Love, and whatever! Methuselah

  18. @ Yvonne: not true what you're stating. Santa Claus comes from the Dutch tradition of "Sinterklaas", not from the German tradition. Since your name is Yvonne, you might be Dutch and you should know that!
    Furthermore, you should know is that Santa Claus, is derived from the real person St. Nicholas, who used to live in TURKEY! So he was not "white" (pig colored skin and blue eyes), but had a normal olive skin and other dark features.

  19. The fact that so many people are debating the colour of an imaginary man just staggers me. Santa isn't white. Santa isn't black. Santa isn't real, so we cannot debate the authenticity, regardless of the vague historical associations he might have.

    Insisting that Santa is white is like insisting that the tooth fairy is straight; at the end of the day determining that a hypothetical person has to fit the default setting unless that difference is integral to their story smacks of white privilege to me.

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